Opinion: Return of the quacks

By Anso Thom, Spotlight Editor

For a long time, South Africa has been a country where charlatans are able to flourish and peddle dangerous remedies for all kinds of ailments.

Take a trip on a public train or a walk down a road in our city centres and you will easily find pamphlets marketing remedies for anything, from enlarging penises to bringing back lost lovers. Even more seriously, the city lamp poles are plastered in posters offering cheap pregnancy termination services. Poor people stand on street corners for hours offering pamphlets and directions to the closest ‘doctor’. All illegal, all dangerous, but almost all operating with impunity.

The reasons these quacks proliferate are many. Not so long ago we had a president and health minister who created an enabling environment for them. President Thabo Mbeki questioned the efficacy of lifesaving anti-AIDS medication, told people they were toxic, and dragged his feet when it came to signing into policy the rollout of these medicines for the thousands who were suffering and dying.

His Health Minister, a medical doctor, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang spoke often and passionately about the so-called healing properties of beetroot, garlic, lemon and olive oil. People sniggered, referred to her as Dr Beetroot and shook their heads.

But what Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang had done successfully, was to sow seeds of doubt. Many, many people living with HIV, desperate for a remedy not only to control the virus, but to exorcise it from their battered bodies, turned to the quacks, who promised to do so. What was criminal was that these ‘doctors’ were operating with the tacit support of the leaders who had the power to close them down.

They included the likes of German multi-vitamin peddler Matthias Rath; KwaZulu-Natal truck driver and seller of a concoction called uBhejane (the recipe of which he said was revealed to him in a dream by his ancestors) Zeblon Gwala and the likes of Tine van der Maas a barefoot Dutch nurse who pushed lemon, garlic, beetroot and olive oil concoctions at the behest of the health minister, or Belgian eccentric Kim Cools who continues to claim that he had injected himself with the HI virus but remains negative due to his remedies (see previous Spotlight).

Activists told stories and journalists wrote articles of the heartache these people had caused – the undignified deaths of mothers who left families orphaned as they dumped their antiretrovirals for Rath vitamins, the fatal and excruciating suffering of the much-loved DJ Khabzela after the health minister sent Van der Maas to heal him, or the illegal Rath clinical trials conducted on poor people, made to strip, have their photographs taken and give their blood.

And then there was Virodene – a powerful chemical detergent peddled by a bunch of crazy scientists as a cure for AIDS, which had as its cheerleader President Mbeki.

Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang were not alone in the rejection of proven treatments. Tshabalala-Msimang’s MECs either turned a blind eye to the fact that people were being used as guinea pigs, or did everything in their power to deny poor people access to lifesaving drugs.

Sibongile Manana was the MEC of Health in Mpumalanga at the height of the denialism years from 1999 to 2003. Now she is a Member of Parliament. As MEC she gave the Greater Rape Intervention Project (GRIP) in Nelspruit hell. She bullied Rob Ferreira Hospital’s Dr Thys von Mollendorff, a gentle caring doctor whose only crime was to try and help rape survivors. He offered them a dignified, safe space in his hospital where they were given the option of accessing legal, tested antiretrovirals to prevent infection. But Manana hounded Von Mollendorff and GRIP out of the hospital and treated them like criminals, dragging them to court and evicting them from the hospital.

Penny Nkonyeni, MEC for Health in KwaZulu-Natal during the Manto years, often rolled out the red carpet for her Minister. She printed quack pamphlets for distribution, hounded doctors who dared to offer pregnant mothers the option of treatment to prevent transmission of HIV to their babies, and she was a willing partner in finding crooked NGOs prepared to run illegal clinical trials using quack concoctions. Nkonyeni was later the speaker in the provincial parliament and Education MEC before being removed in a Cabinet reshuffle earlier this year. She indicated she was joining the private sector.

The examples are many and for those who were there, these memories are painful. Those who were there made a pact saying, never again.

Fast forward to 2016 

Dr Benny Malakoane is a medical doctor and was until recently Health MEC in the Free State. Over a three-and-a-half year period he oversaw the collapse of the public health-care system in the province, and turned the state machinery on elderly community health workers who were asking inconvenient questions, while facing multiple charges of fraud and corruption (these cases are still ongoing due to continued delays).It now appears that, much like Manana and Nkonyeni, Malakoane enabled a quack to operate with impunity in a state hospital, using unsuspecting state patients as guinea pigs in an illegal stem cell trial. In fact, this operation had been signed and sealed in a three-year contract which was due to further impoverish the Free State health system and enrich the shareholders of ReGenesis Health with millions of rands.

Questions must be asked over the enthusiasm of the MEC in signing this contract and personally overseeing its implementation. One has to ask how the MEC could be so enthusiastic in rolling out an untested stem cell intervention in the Pelonomi hospital’s orthopaedic department while his health system is collapsing and failing to get basic medicines to clinics and hospitals.

The Medicines Control Council led by Professor Helen Rees intervened within days of health minster Dr Aaron Motsoaledi becoming aware of this contract. It is refreshing and heartening to know and see in action the difference an ethical, incorruptible and no nonsense health minister and medical doctor can make. If only we had someone like Dr Motsoaledi in the early 2000s.

The MCC swiftly closed the ReGenesis operations at Pelonomi and have made it clear that according to the information they have, an illegal trial was being conducted, using an untested intervention.

For now, the operations have been brought to a halt and the Free State Department of Health has cancelled the contract. The MCC has sent ReGenesis a comprehensive list of questions, and Free State Premier Ace Magashule has been left with the task of holding his MEC accountable. Don’t get your hopes up.

Within a day of the information being revealed by Spotlight and the investigative television show, Carte Blanche, Free State premier Ace Magashule shifted his Health MEC to Economic and Small Business Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs, and installed his former Police, Roads and Transport MEC Butana Kompela as the health custodian.

However, we cannot allow another quack enabler to get away without being held accountable.

The Free State Department of Health and Premier Magashule have to provide answers to some very serious questions. For instance, why did the Free State Department of Health publish a tender for stem cell therapy in the first place? On what basis was ReGenesis appointed in June? Why was Malakoane so closely involved with the project, chairing the board that would provide oversight of the work and research done by ReGenesis?

Simply shifting Malakoane to another post doesn’t make these questions go away. For there to be any accountability we need answers to these questions. The people of the Free State are not guinea pigs. They are not pawns in an alleged scam to enrich charlatans.

Not on our watch. The ball is in your court Premier Magashule.


“Bring your pubic hair” – healers and quacks continue to thrive in KwaZulu-Natal

By Nomatter Ndebele

In KwaZulu-Natal, according to reports from the Human Sciences Research Council, there are 1.8 million people who are HIV positive. Of those, 1.1 million are on the antiretroviral programme. Yet, despite making great strides in the fight against HIV, the streets of KZN are still full of non-medical “healers” who prey on sick, desperate and vulnerable people desperate to be cured of HIV. Nomatter Ndebele visits two “healers” with thriving businesses.

Prayers and pubic hairs

Doctor Sawa’s two-room consultation office is on the 7th floor of an office building in Durban’s CBD. A few blocks from his office, a young woman is handing out pamphlets detailing his expertise, which includes bringing back lost lovers and curing HIV.

When I arrive, Sawa invites us to sit down and disappears behind a curtain into another room. Every so often, there’s a rattle coming from behind the door. After five minutes, he asks me to take my shoes off and come into the consultation room.

Kim Cools’ compound on Inanda dam, where he is preparing rooms for hundreds of volunteers he believes will come and stay
Kim Cools’ compound on Inanda dam, where he is preparing rooms for hundreds of volunteers he believes will come and stay

The walls of the room are draped in leopard-print material, and there is a large wooden pole in the middle of the room. The only light comes from a single candle, casting shadows on the animal-print walls. In one corner there is a grass shrine with a small, cave-like opening. At the other end of the room is a table with empty baby-food jars and Vaseline tubs containing different coloured powders and substances.

When the doctor leans forward, there are beads of sweat dripping down his youthful face.

“Did you bring what I told you to” he asks, referring to the R350 consultation fee. He instructs me to drop the money into a grass bowl, close my eyes and pray. When I open my eyes again, the money is gone.

The consultation begins. Sawa studiously writes down key information. I say I am 24 and was diagnosed with HIV three months ago.

“Do you believe in Amakhosi amakhulu (the ancestors), sister, and do you thandaza (pray)?”

Because that is what I need to be healed, to pray, speak to the ancestors, and to drink his prescribed muti.

The consultation lasts about 45 minutes. Most of it is dedicated to us praying out loud that my ancestors cure me, and while we pray the “doctor” shakes his rattle loudly near my head, and prays “Mbirimbiri, Makhosi amakhulu, Dube, Dube, Dube.”

After speaking to my ancestors, he tells me that I need to be patient as the treatment could take up to a month. He also tells me that I need to come back the following week.

“Bring samples of your pubic hair, so that we can speak to the ancestors again.”

He gives me a green powdered muti bundled in newspaper. I will have to bath in this to cleanse myself of HIV.

“Make sure you call me every time before you bath, so that I can pray on this side,” he tells me.

He tells me to cut down on drinking, that my partner and I can have sex, but that in a week or so – when he gives us the go ahead – we won’t have to use condoms anymore. He also says I never have to go back to the clinic because in about a month, I will be cleansed of HIV.

In the meantime, all I must do is pray, bath, be strong, co-operate and always answer his calls.

Of conspiracy theories and “healing” juice

Kim Cools has striking blue eyes. Next to his right eye is a puss-filled wound.

“I had a little cancer thing here, so I took a razor and sliced it off,” he explains.

There is no such thing as HIV, he later declares.

“If I inject myself with HIV-positive blood, how come it doesn’t affect me? It’s simple. If you read the books, there is no HIV,” he says.

Even so, he has a cure for this “non-existent thing called HIV”.

Cools, is a long-time dissident who has been in the country since 1995. He has spent all of this time “trying to awaken the people,” he explains. Before Cools came to South Africa, he had been diagnosed with colon cancer and was told he only had four months left to live. It’s 21 years later and Cools sells at least 2 000 bottles a month of the mixture he believes saved his life.

This mixture of ginger, lemon and garlic is now a juice branded “Umlingo” and it is mass produced at a factory in Pinetown, Durban. It is distributed to thousands of people as a cure for HIV, or rather, as a cure for acidic bodies, since there is no such thing as HIV.

“It’s all one big lie,” he says.

According to Cools’ website, he is a health practitioner. He is also a conspiracy theorist: there is no HIV, the moon is a hologram, the earth is flat, and there is a giant wall at the end of the South Pole holding vast tracts of land that “they” (The Matrix), are hiding from us.

Given half a chance, Cools will tell anyone who will listen about the germ theory, which he has “proven over and over again to be untrue”. .

The local clinic bears the brunt of Cools’ theories.

KwaNgcilosi Clinic is a 10 minute drive from Cools’ island plot on Inanda Dam.

The head sister there is reluctant to discuss Kim Cools.

“I want nothing to do with that man,” she says. “He just keeps confusing the patients with his nonsense.”

In spite of his unsightly eye, Cools is likeable. It is easy to see how anyone could get caught up in this friendly man’s theories.

There was a time when the patients at KwaNgcilosi Clinic stopped coming to get their medication altogether.

Even though things are better now, there are still many people who have traded in their ARVs for Umlingo juice.

While the government and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) have worked tirelessly to rid the province of pseudo-scientists and traditional healers, Cools and his gang have managed to keep going.

Cools tell us that in 2017, the government will “rollout” Umlingo juice.

“In 2017, in the Durban Metro, there will be a six-month or 12-month programme to see how it can actually expand.”

Cools claims that there are doctors, nurses and ministerial bodyguards who visit his island compound to get bottles of the juice. The compound is secured by a barbed-wire fence and two gates that remain locked at all times. Although confident of his mixture, Cools carries a deep-etched paranoia: “There are lots of people from The Matrix who want to get rid of me,” he says.

He has big plans for the future. He is currently building bunkers on his compound and a large food forest that will feed the hundreds of volunteers he imagines will come and stay on his Island.

Perhaps the scariest aspect of his warped self-assurance is his blatant disregard for South African law.

He says, repeatedly, that “they are allowing us people to stand up, without doing what Europeans would do, which is put us in prison and shut us up.”

Despite ongoing efforts to rid the province of people like Dr Sawa and Kim Cools, a cycle of poverty continues to drive hundreds of desperate people into the arms of pseudo scientists and false traditional healers offering any kind of solution to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.